I am married and monogamous, even though I was polyamorous most of my adult life before we married. I am committed to my wife. It’s not just about fidelity, although that is part of it. You know, now that we are all living in a pandemic, monogamy looks a lot more like convenience. If you were lucky enough to be living with someone when the lockdown went into effect, you have a steady partnership as long as you don’t drive each other crazy. If you were single and dating and you happened to find someone, taking them into your bubble takes on so much more significance now. People are finding themselves living with and forming bonds with one another by circumstance. But is there commitment there? What will happen once the quarantine lifts?
White mainstream American culture has never been very good at commitment. We don’t have a good track record of keeping our promises or holding to principles. Self-help books giving relationship advice are always sitting among our bestsellers lists. When it comes to building committed relationships, the popular advice books tend to focus on two extremes — those who avoid commitment, and those who cling to it. The healthy medium is presented as “secure,” security being among the highest values within white culture. But my journey has brought me to a different balance with commitment that I wish to share with you.
I still identify as a poly person. Most of the people in the world are probably monogamous, I believe. I mean, it could be conditioning, given that most major religions and societal institutions place so much virtue on monogamy. In fact, I bet when most people read an article about commitment, they assume it is about monogamy. You can be polyamorous and still make and keep commitments. Polyamory isn’t promiscuity. Polyamory is a disposition that you can choose to act on or not. When lived with integrity, you can be poly with openness and honesty. It’s about consent, caring, and compersion — the joy in other people’s joy. If you don’t really know much about polyamory, I think the assumption you are likely to make about my situation is that after several years of sowing wild oats, I was finally ready to settle down. But it’s not like that. I’m still as poly as I ever was, my choice to make a monogamous commitment now has no effect on that.
I had no predisposition or exposure to polyamory growing up. In my military Catholic family, it was expected that you would either get married or be celibate. As much as I considered myself a rebel, I was a pretty solidly conservative young woman when I went to college. Thus, I was shocked and angered to hear my psychology professor announce to the class that he discovered that he was capable of loving more than one woman. He related how his wife hates it when he tells this story, but he met a woman who he fell in love with and found that it didn’t make him fall out of love with his wife. To me, he came off as a creep. Whether he was or not, at that time in my life I believed that when you fall in love, you need to make a commitment and stick to it. But I was a late bloomer. I hadn’t yet fallen in love.
By the time I came out to myself as queer, it seemed everyone on campus already knew. I didn’t have sex until I was 20. The first woman I dated, I presumed to be monogamous with. It was all I knew. She cheated on me twice that I knew of. The first time, she confessed to me right away and she was devastated that I wasn’t angry with her. She had “lapsed” with her ex-lover and I told her that made sense to me. She wanted me to be angry and jealous, but I wasn’t. The second time, she tried to keep it a secret from me. When I found out, I broke up with her. It wasn’t the infidelity that hurt me, it was the deceit. Even as that relationship was dissolving, I was already being pursued by another woman who turned out to be a drama queen. She fabricated realities to make her life more exciting. In the course of the year I spent with her, she also had sex with other people and again, I found that as long as she told me about it, it didn’t hurt me or threaten what we had together. But the lies simply killed it for me.
When she and I broke up, I needed a refuge. I moved in with some friends of mine who were radical activists. In this circle, many of the ideals I grew up with were turned upside down. Commitment was referred to as “the C word,” being disdained along with patriarchy, capitalism, and misogyny. When one of my roommates and I became romantically involved, we said we would keep things open, take it as it comes, even though neither of us had any idea what we were doing. This was back in the days when polyamory wasn’t a word yet, we called it nonmonogamy. We had simply abandoned one creed and adopted another. We shunned commitment because we equated it with ownership and control. I didn’t understand yet what commitment could be. It took me a while to even realize that just because I was allowed to hook up with more than one person at a time didn’t mean I had to. I was still learning to find my agency.
It may sound naïve of me to not know when I had a choice, but if you are part of the majority who live in the dominant world of monogamy you might not have considered the complications that affected me. It’s hard enough for anyone to find a match relationship-wise. Poly people face an additional struggle to find each other. The usual scenario is that once you discover you are poly and you want to have the option to be lovers with more than one person, you meet someone you are attracted to and then hope that they will be open to the arrangement. Statistically speaking, that person is not likely to also be “naturally” poly and so they will either try to be poly because they are also attracted to you and feel like they need to be poly to have a relationship with you, adopt a poly lifestyle because they feel they should for political reasons or social pressure, or simply turn you down. When they didn’t turn me down, I clung to that relationship even when it got to be more difficult than it was worth. I felt that because I was the one who was poly, I needed to commit to being willing to endure endless hours of working through agonizing jealousy trauma. Now, if you’re going to be ethical about being poly, you really should be responsive to your partners’ feelings. But I took it too far. Even though I no longer believed in being tied down by a monogamous commitment, I had bound myself to a new obligatory commitment to suffer through my lovers’ emotional hardship regardless of my own.
Are the choices you make “free” or are they bound by expectations and duty?
Obligation is a foundational concept to white American culture. Our work ethic and love of law and order are rooted in a sense that moral beings are bound by societal obligations. Ours is a culture driven by external motivators. In my young adulthood, I found myself attempting to free myself from obligations. But I only replaced them with new ones. Are the choices you make “free” or are they bound by expectations and duty? I had abandoned the Catholic Church for all of its patriarchal hypocrisy, I was building my own morality, but I had not yet found freedom.
It is rare but not impossible for two poly people to find each other AND be a match romantically. I was lucky enough to find that and for several years, I experienced what mutual compersion feels like. We started dating each other, knowing we each had other lovers. There was no trying to win each other away from anyone, no competition for time or attention. When we spent time together, we both loved hearing about our adventures with other lovers, like good friends who also found each other really hot. A few years into our mutual explorations, I came to a point where I realized that she was central to my life and I approached her about making a commitment. We had what we dubbed a primarriage, and we became the kind of practical partners you would expect from a typical marriage. We moved in together, shared money, and had children, all the while continuing to date other people. About six years into our primarriage, we found that we were no longer romantically connected and our relationship commitment was now centered on parenting and finances. This is not uncommon in monogamous relationships, especially when you have small children, but we didn’t seem to be coming back together as sexual partners. I was changing, too. I transitioned to a man at this time. We dissolved our primary commitment to each other and committed to maintain a friendly co-parenting relationship.
When I started dating my life partner, I was newly free. Now living in my own apartment and having periods of kid-free time when they were away with their mother, I was coming into myself again. I felt ready to explore new worlds and was very attached to my identity as poly. I saw it as a commitment to myself. Anyone I dated had to accept the fact that I was poly in order to accept me. She knew this about me and conceded to the complications of scheduling dates with me around my other engagements. But she also challenged me to examine the motivation behind my ultimatum. Sure, I should love myself and honor my polyamorous nature, but wasn’t the point of a relationship to build a mutual bond? My expectation that she compromise her position to meet mine was pretty one-sided. But she caught me at a time when I was fiercely guarding my independence. Having dragged myself through elongated break-ups with lovers who tried to be poly out of obligation, I hoped to fend off that nonsense by being rigid up front.
I call it the self-love trap because it can create barriers for the very things we long for and seek — companionship, a sense of belonging, and love.
Here, I entered the self-love trap that is so popular among personal growth books and workshops. White culture is very individualistic. All the pulling oneself up by the bootstraps and such nonsense has complete disregard for the interdependency of human society. All the follow your bliss advice does little to recognize or cultivate integrity or responsibility to your community. White folks generally have little or no sense of tribe, of mutual co-existence. We tend to exalt individual achievement, self-reliance, and being true to thine own self. While loving yourself is way better than hating yourself, it’s also important to realize you are part of a larger network of people. I call it the self-love trap because it can create barriers for the very things we long for and seek — companionship, a sense of belonging, and love.
While I was able to find sexual partners without much difficulty, it was not so easy to find someone to share my life with. Over time, I found what I needed more than sex was a partnership, someone to raise my children with me and build a solid life together. This woman I was dating was already bonded with my children. She seemed to really “get” me as a trans man. We were on the same page as far as our ethics around money and values. She was in my life in more ways than sharing my bed. We began to talk about building a life together and she let me know that in order to do that, she needed a commitment from me. We decided to get married, but our engagement lasted two years. During that time, I gradually placed incremental restrictions on my sexual freedoms in order to meet her. I was finally over the self-love trap enough to compromise. Then, four months prior to our wedding, I made the decision to just be monogamous with her.
It was about my commitment to her and it was also an acknowledgment that the partnership I had with her was more important to me than sex. She didn’t demand this from me, I chose it. I reached a point where what I gained by being poly just wasn’t worth damaging what I had or could have with her. We made “yes!” the theme of our wedding and focused on making this choice together, not out of obligation or pressure, but positively from our own hearts. And yet, it still took nearly ten years of being married to really understand the critical piece about making this commitment.
I made this commitment and if I don’t like it, I can change it.
For many years, I felt like I had made a sacrifice for her. I felt like my fidelity was a bargaining chip, and with it, I could expect returns from her. I knew better than to expect sex. Having lived as a woman long enough to know how sexual expectation contaminates relationships and rots a person from the inside out, I never wanted to have sex with my partner unless she wanted it. But that didn’t stop me from feeling sorry for myself when she didn’t want it and I did. It didn’t stop me from thinking about what I could have had with someone else. At times, I felt despair that I was throwing away the best years of my life. I knew myself to be a person of integrity, and as such I would never seriously consider breaking my commitment to her by cheating on her. I also knew myself to be unfulfilled. For a time, I let myself feel restricted by our commitment.
It took me nearly ten years to realize that commitment, if it is clean, is not something that hangs weightily between two people. It is mine. It is within me. I have agency. I chose this. I choose this every morning and hold onto it every day. I can’t put my commitment off on her, or a faith I adhere to, or my extended family, or anyone else. It is mine. I made this commitment and if I don’t like it, I can change it. But whenever I face it like that, I keep choosing it again. When I remember that my commitment is my own, I don’t let myself feel trapped or burdened or pitiful. Instead, I remember why I chose her, why I chose this life, what I have and how much I value it.
Beyond the isolating sense of self, and beyond the rigid hold of obligations, we are part of something interconnected, beautiful, and flowing. The world is small and we are in it together. We need and are blessed with each other, both giving and receiving connection. A commitment is a way of honoring one of those connections, placing intention and energy there, but it is ongoing. To honor the connection is to flow and change with it. Here is a balance between avoidance and anxious attachment, but is it secure? If by secure you mean peaceful acceptance, then yes. But it is not a shield or a locked door, nor is it a surefire defense against outward attacks. It is simply the constant choosing of a connection. There is a harmony to it, a comfort, a way of being.
So to all of the circumstantial relationships out there, all the people locked together in this pandemic, here is my advice. Don’t be afraid of commitment. It can’t really hold you down. Only fear and intimidation do that. Consider your choices and take your time. If your relationship is the kind of good thing you want to sustain and grow, you can commit to it. When you choose commitment, however, it is not a done deal. It’s not a chain that anchors you. It’s not a weapon you can use to enforce your will. You can’t own each other, but you can own your commitment. You can embrace it as your own and remake it every day. This gives you freedom and at the same time it gives you direction. It allows your partner to rely on you enough for them to also forge a path that coincides with yours. It gives you the fortitude to do the hard work of building a lasting relationship together, but also the agency to change your mind if the commitment is no longer healthy.
I have hope that this grand social experiment of a global lockdown can rebuild humanity. Perhaps we can take this time of withdrawal and reflection to find true connections and remake commitments. Whether it is romantic partnerships or reimagining social justice, what we commit ourselves to can determine harmony or discord. It’s up to you.